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CHAPTER XLVII: THAT IN THIS LIFE WE ARE UNABLE TO SEE GOD IN HIS ESSENCE
IF, in this life, we are unable to understand separate substances by reason of our intellect's innate relation to phantasms, much less can we see the divine essence in this life, since it is far above all separate substances. We may take it as a sign of this, that the more our mind is raised to the contemplation of spiritual things, the more is it withdrawn from sensible things. Now the divine substance is the highest term to which contemplation can reach: hence the mind that sees the divine substance must be wholly freed from the senses, either by death or by rapture. Wherefore it is said in God's person (Exod. xxxiii. 20): Man shall not see me, and live.
If it is stated in Holy Writ that some have seen God, we must understand this to have been either through an imaginary vision--or even a bodily vision, the presence of the divine power being shown by corporeal species whether appearing externally, or formed internally in the imagination:--or by gathering some intellectual knowledge of God from His spiritual effects.
A difficulty, however, arises through some words of Augustine which would seem to imply that we are able to understand God in this life. For he says (9 De Trin. vii.) that with the eyes of the soul we see the form of our being and of our actions--whether effected in ourselves or truly and rightly on other bodies--in the eternal truth, from which all temporal things proceed. Again (12 Conf. xxv.) he says: If we both see that what you say is true, and that what I say is true: where, I ask, do we see this? Surely, neither I in thee, nor thou in me; but both of us in the immutable truth itself which transcends our minds. And (De Vera Relig. xxxi.) he says that we judge of all things according to the divine truth: and again (1. Solil. xv.): We must first know the truth by which other things can be known, referring, it would seem, to the divine truth. It would seem then, from his words, that we see God Himself who is His own truth, and that through Him we know other things.
Other words of his would seem to point to the same conclusion, in 12 De Trin. ii., where he says: It is the duty of reason to judge of these corporeal things, according to the incorporeal and eternal ideas which, unless they were above the human mind, would surely not be unchangeable. Now unchangeable and eternal ideas cannot be elsewhere than in God, since according to the teaching of faith, God alone is eternal. Accordingly it would seem to follow that we can see God in this life, and that through seeing Him and the ideas of things in Him, we judge of other things.
Yet it is not to be believed that Augustine, by these words, meant that we are able in this life to see God in His essence. We must therefore inquire how, in this life, we see that unchangeable truth, or these eternal ideas, and how judge of them according to it.
Augustine allows that truth is in the soul (2 Solil. xix.): wherefore he proves the immortality of the soul from the eternity of truth. Now truth is in the soul not only in the same way as God is said to be in all things by His essence; or as He is in all things by His likeness,--a thing being true so far as it is like to God--for then the soul would not be higher than other things in this respect. It is therefore in the soul in a special way, forasmuch as the soul knows the truth. Accordingly just as the soul and other things are said to be true in their nature, according as they are likened to that supreme nature, which is truth itself; since it is its own being understood by itself; so too, that which is known by the soul, is true so far as it bears a likeness to that divine truth which God knows. Wherefore a gloss on Ps. xi. 2, Truths are decayed from among the children of men, says that as a mirror gives many reflections of one face, so are many truths reflected in men's minds from the first truth. Now although different things are known, and different things believed to be true, by different people, yet some truths there are in which all men agree, such as first principles both of the speculative and of the practical intellect: inasmuch as a kind of image of the divine truth is reflected in the minds of all men.
Consequently when a mind knows with certitude anything at all, and by tracing it back to the principles by which we judge of everything, comes to see it in those principles, it is said to see all such things in the divine truth or in the eternal ideas, and to judge of all things according to them. This explanation is confirmed by Augustine's words (1 Solil. viii.): The speculations of science are seen in the divine truth, even as these visible things are seen in the light of the sun: for it is evident that these things are not seen in the body of the sun, but by the light, which is a likeness of the solar brilliance reflected in the air, and cast upon such bodies. Therefore, from these words of Augustine, we cannot conclude that God is seen in His essence in this life, but only as in a mirror: and to this the Apostle witnesses as regards the knowledge of this life (1 Cor. xiii. 12): We see now through a glass in a dark manner.
And though this mirror, which is the human mind, reflects the likeness of God more faithfully than creatures of lower degree, yet the knowledge of God that can be gathered from the human mind, does not surpass the knowledge gathered from sensible things: since even the soul knows what itself is through understanding the nature of sensible things, as already stated. Consequently even in this way God is not known in higher fashion than the cause is known from its effect.
|Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. by The English Dominican Fathers from the latest Leonine Edition, Benzinger Brothers: New York, 1924.|